Nestling at the back of what I fondly call my mind has been a reference, by O.R. Johnston (in his 1979 book, Who Needs The Family?) to an important but neglected piece of research which presented evidence for a positive correlation between sexual restraint and cultural achievement.
I was pleased to track down Johnston’s book, and his discussion of the research in question. Here is what Johnston has to say:
I turn now to the various types of marriage pattern in different societies and ask what advantages scholars have perceived in the different types of sexual regulation. One of the most significant studies here has been that of J. D. Unwin, whose book Sex and Culture is undoubtedly one of the monumental works of comparative anthropology. Written in 1932 and published by the Oxford University Press two years later, this book of six hundred and seventy-five pages is a leisurely, detailed and exhaustive account of an inquiry. Unwin describes his investigation as follows:
When I started these researches I sought to establish nothing, and had no idea of what the result would be. With care-free open-mindedness I decided to test, by a reference to human records, a somewhat startling conjecture that had been made by the analytical psychologists. This suggestion was that if the social regulations forbid direct satisfaction of the sexual impulses the emotional conflict is expressed in another way, and that what we call “civilisation” has always been built up by compulsory sacrifices in the gratification of innate desires.
Unwin selected only societies for which sufficient evidence could be found (a) of sexual regulation and (b) of what he calls “cultural energy”. This latter he defined as a process perceived as tending towards refinement, elegance, exactitude, a drive towards questioning, exploring and conquering. His studies covered eighty primitive societies’ and sixteen civilised societies’ and his two general conclusions were as follows:
1. The cultural condition of any society in any geographical environment is conditioned by its past and present methods of regulating the relations between the sexes.’
2. No society can display productive social energy unless a new generation inherits a social system under which sexual opportunity is reduced to a minimum.’
The Western Christian norm received startling support from this research. The greatest energy, Unwin comments, has been displayed only by those societies which have reduced their sexual opportunity to a minimum by the adoption of absolute monogamy.’
Thus Unwin confirmed, by meticulous and thoughtful amassing of a vast amount of evidence, that the gloomy observations of Freud, though founded on what may appear a jaundiced view of human nature, did correspond to empirical data on the macro-sociological level. Freud believed that only by communal renunciation of instinctual gratification could civilisation arise and a society continue to exist. He believed that culture springs from the denial of instincts. Art, science and technology arise from the restraint of aggression, sex and avarice. Unwin showed results which were consistent with this theory, though he professed ignorance of the –why” and even the “how”. He concluded that the evidence pointed towards a choice: either cultural energy and achievement, or sexual licence. It is impossible for any society to enjoy both for more than one generation. Aldous Huxley examined Unwin’s evidence in his book Ends and Means (1965), as did Dr. David Mace,” and both found his evidence compelling. The way in which Unwin’s work has been almost completely ignored by both scholars and popular writers sometimes seems positively sinister.
Back in 1994, Philip Yancey praised Unwin’s work, and called his book ‘The Lost Sex Study’.
Seeking to test the Freudian notion that civilization is a byproduct of repressed sexuality, the scholar J. D. Unwin studied 86 different societies. His findings startled many scholars – above all, Unwin himself – because all 86 demonstrated a direct tie between monogamy and the “expansive energy” of civilization.
Unwin had no Christian convictions and applied no moral judgment: “I offer no opinion about rightness or wrongness.” Nevertheless, he had to conclude, “In human records there is no instance of a society retaining its energy after a complete new generation has inherited a tradition which does not insist on pre-nuptial and post-nuptial continence.”
Yancey contrasts Unwin’s conclusions with the ‘de-moralisation’ of sex, where sexual desire is no more mysterious than the desire for food or water, and where it leaves the serious world of reproduction and enters the blissful world of play. Strangely, however, ‘jealousy still rears its ugly head, and cuckolds still murder their lovers’ lovers as if sexuality involved the joining of lives and not merely genitals.’
A extended series of extracts from Unwin’s book may be found here.